Claim: When John Hancock affixed his famously large signature to the Declaration of Independence, he proclaimed, "There, I guess King George will be able to read that!"
Variations: Hancock is also said to have exclaimed, "There! John Bull can read my name without spectacles and may now double his reward of £500 for my head. That is my defiance."
Origins: In the introduction to his recent biography of John Hancock, Harlow Giles Unger noted that:
Although John Hancock's bold signature on the Declaration of Independence is a national symbol — indeed, his name is a synonym for the word "signature" — Hancock remains among the least known of America's founding fathers. A huge Boston life insurance company emblazons his name on its glass skyscraper, a World War II aircraft carrier carried his name into battle on its bow, and thousands of Americans walk along Hancock Streets and Avenues — but few know much, if anything, about him.
It is indeed one of the quirks of history that John Hancock — one of colonial America's most ardent revolutionaries and greatest philanthropists, a nine-term governor of Massachusetts, president of
the Continental Congress, the first signer of the Declaration of Independence — is so little-known to Americans. Sure, we know his name because of his bold signature on the Declaration of Independence, but we don't know much about Hancock the man, and we don't generally rank him among the pantheon of America's founding fathers as we do men such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.
Perhaps because we know so little about Hancock the man, we've invented legends about him to explain how his name came to be front and center on the Declaration of Independence, the largest and clearest signature on the document, smack in the middle of the top row. It was an act of defiance, we've decided — a bold stroke by a bold man who challenged the British to come and get him, and who by so doing instilled confidence and courage in the colonial delegates who followed his lead and affixed their names to the Declaration as well, even though they risked being hanged for treason by doing so.
John Hancock was an extremely rich man who risked much of his fortune on the success of the revolution, who had a price on his head, and who practically guaranteed by signing the Declaration that he would be hanged by the British if caught. But none of those factors explains his prominent signature, and the tales about the defiant exclamations he supposedly uttered while signing the Declaration are based on a couple of historical misconceptions: that the purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to serve formal notice upon George III that the American colonies were officially declaring themselves to be independent states (something akin to a modern day declaration of war), and that all the delegates to the Continental Congress signed the Declaration on July 4, 1776.
The Declaration of Independence was not addressed to King George, nor was a copy delivered to him by colonial representatives (although there was no doubt that he would eventually see it). The purpose of the Declaration was to explain to the American colonists why the Continental Congress felt it necessary to break with Great Britain, and to justify their actions to the rest of the world. The Declaration appears to be addressed to George III in that it blames "the present King of Great Britain" for "a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States," but it was constructed that way because the delegates felt Parliament was an unrepresentative body with no legal authority to pass laws governing them, and that making Parliament the target of their grievances in the Declaration would be tantamount to recognizing its authority to rule the
The delegates to the Continental Congress did not sign the Declaration of Independence the day it was adopted, July 4, 1776, and thus there was no need for Hancock to spur them on by being the first to take that bold step. When Congress adjourned on July 4 after having debated the Declaration for three days and having voted to adopt the document with some revisions, Hancock — as president of that body — was charged with authenticating the revised document and signing it so that copies could be printed and sent to the colonial legislatures for approval and distributed to the Continental Army. (These copies were not the same as the familiar document that is now on exhibit in the U.S. National archives; the first printed copies of the Declaration bore only the names of John Hancock and Charles Thomson.) Thus, when Hancock first put his name to a copy of the Declaration, he did so in an empty chamber; the only other person present was Charles Thomson, a Pennsylvanian who was serving as the secretary of Congress. It's unlikely Hancock would have spoken any of the defiant phrases attributed to him, as no one was there to hear his words but Thomson. Thomson himself never claimed Hancock said anything about "King George" or "John Bull" as he signed.
It wasn't until August 1776 that Hancock and other delegates began adding their signatures to the "official" version of the Declaration of Independence (and
they did so over the course of weeks and months, not all on the same day — some of them didn't sign it until years later). Congress kept the identities of the signatories secret for several months to protect them from being charged with treason, so Hancock and others did run a great risk for affixing their names to that document. However, Hancock typically signed his name in the fancy, large script so familiar to us, and the reason his name appears in the middle of the top row of the Declaration is because he was president of the Continental Congress at the time the document was approved and adopted. Moreover, despite the impression created by John Trumbull's famous painting of the event, Hancock did not sign his name amidst a crowd of other delegates, and the legendary phrases that he supposedly uttered as he signed his name didn't appear in histories and biographies until well after the fact.
John Hancock was much more than a man with a fancy signature, and his legend is a fascinating and admirable story without the need for embellishment.